Over two million cable subscribers in the U.S. can now browse profiles of local fugitives in the comfort of their living rooms–and help police capture runaway criminals.
On January 25, 38-year-old Simone Ross walked into New Jersey's Atlantic County Jail and surrendered her freedom. Ross had been on the lam for nearly two years after absconding from the state's Intensive Supervision Program, where she'd been placed back in May 2008 after serving time in state prison for aggravated assault and resisting arrest.
But it wasn't armed troopers who found her and dragged her back behind bars. It was her family–with an assist from the Comcast cable company.
Earlier in January, Ross's face was broadcast on a television program called Police Blotter On Demand, a partnership between Comcast and New Jersey law enforcement that allows citizens to browse their area's most wanted fugitives at any time of the day or night, with just a click of their remote control.
According to Lt. Brian Slattery of the New Jersey State Police, one of Ross's family members had been flipping through the service and saw Ross's profile (which indicated she was considered armed and dangerous). The relative called her and persuaded her to turn herself in.
Police Blotter on Demand, which some might consider the couch-potato version of crime-fighting, is now on air in 23 localities, including Denver, South Florida and Washington, D.C., after beginning as an experiment in Philadelphia in 2006. According to Matt Strauss, Comcast's Senior Vice President of New Media, the cable company conceived it both as a new type of on-demand entertainment offering and as a way to promote civic engagement. Strauss says Comcast approached the Philadelphia Police Department with an offer they could scarcely refuse: “We said, if you guys cooperate we'll pay for everything,” says Strauss.
From Pets to Fugitives
According to Strauss, a similar program called Pet Adoptions On Demand, operated in partnership with Philadelphia's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, had led to more than 70 percent of the animals featured getting adopted. Applying the same logic–local “most wanted” TV specials run with police cooperation are often annual events with limited reach–seemed like a no-brainer.
In November 2006 the first batch of Philadelphia profiles–including photographs, known aliases, last known address and the crimes subjects have been charges with–went live. The production, which is paid for by Comcast, looks a bit like America's Most Wanted, with officers filmed talking about various fugitives, photos of fugitives, and occasionally some “fancy” film work, like a close-up map view of an intersection near where a subject was last seen. Across the screen scrolls the phone number for either local police or a national hotline. Comcast declined to say how much money they spend producing PBOD, and didn't provide specifics when asked how many other cities were considering the service, saying only that they are “actively exploring possibilities.”
Today, Comcast says that more than two million subscribers have been titillated by snapshot profiles of some 600 fugitives. According to Comcast's Strauss, the system has helped apprehend nearly 100 fugitives nationally since it began–but there is no way of independently validating the figures.
“Most of our calls come in through Crime Stoppers, and they don't ask where you saw the fugitive–they just want the tip,” says Senior Corporal Jeff Whitmarsh of the Delaware State Police, who maintains that his department loves the service even though he can't say for certain how it has helped.
Is this any different than an electronic version of a “Wanted” poster? The FBI's notorious 10 most-wanted federal criminals are listed on the FBI home page, with an offer to sign up for “e-mail updates.” Defenders of the on-demand program believe it offers a new way for the public to get directly involved in law enforcement, as well address an increasingly worrying problem in law enforcement around the nation. The Crime Report reported this month that state and local law enforcement have fallen so far behind in keeping up with a growing population of fugitives, that victims have simply given up pursuing justice out of frustration.
“It can be hard for police to keep victims apprised of their case when someone has fled,” says Whitmarsh. “The blotter lets us show them first hand what we're doing to apprehend a subject. Putting the remote control in someone's hand really empowers the victim.”
Nevertheless, there are risks in yet another technology that turns the serious job of protecting public safety into a form of public entertainment. Are all the people listed on PBOD active threats to the community? “They don't have to be dangerous,” says Whitmarsh, “but they must be wanted for a felony level crime.” Some featured fugitives have been convicted of felonies, but some have simply been charged with felonies and fled.
New Jersey's Lt. Slattery says this new system is similar to, but more interactive than, the digital billboards that flash Amber Alerts and Most Wanted pictures everywhere from rural Georgia to New York City's Times Square. “There's no down side,” says Slattery, whose department started the program last spring after a retired trooper who'd been working in security at Comcast told his former colleagues about the technology: “I told him, if you can set it up, great,” says Slattery. Within weeks, Slattery sent a list of fugitives to Comcast, which put the information into the template, then sent a camera crew to film the lieutenant introducing the profiles.
“We're always looking for new ways to get the job done,” Slattery continued. “For an hour of our time this can be viewed by thousands of people.”
According to Slattery, 12 of the 25 fugitives featured in their version of the blotter since November 2008 have been captured. Delaware's Whitmarsh told The Crime Report that every few months since their program started in April 2008, he emails his troopers asking for the names of fugitives they've been unsuccessful in tracking. Once he gets the list, Whitmarsh does what he calls “due diligence,” making sure the person in question isn't incarcerated in another state and double-checking to assure they have a correct photograph. He also requires troopers to have made documented attempts to apprehend the individual before submitting to the cable blotter.
“We don't put anyone's name out there unless we've already done our job,” he explains. “And we're not going to waste our time if we know the subject has fled to Mexico.”
A few months after Delaware's program went live, Whitmarsh says the local Philadelphia Fox News TV station approached the department to host a “Wednesday's Wanted” segment, further publicizing local fugitives.
“The Blotter offers a new, dynamic way to get suspects' names out to the public,” says Whitmarsh. “Before, if I sent a picture of one of our most wanted to the local newspaper, unless there was a bigger story to go with it, they weren't going to waste their time.”
Julia Dahl is a contributing editor of The Crime Report